It is summer in Edmonton, and that means it is time for food, fun and festivals. It also means that there are many people staying in their homes locked in by a vicious beast, social anxiety disorder (called SAD for the rest of this blog).
Defining SAD and some statistics: A person struggling with SAD may experience extreme fear in social situations, worry that they are being judged by others, be scared of embarrassing themselves or worried about making mistakes among other worries. Often there are two subtypes, a fear of speaking in front of people (public speaking, groups or being assertive) or more generalized anxiety that can encompass a range of social behaviours such as eating around people, being in large groups, and more. A person experiencing SAD can have extreme distress, with individual symptoms ranging from fidgeting to a racing heart and difficulty breathing. SAD can present itself in children, adolescents and adults, though often SAD develops at a younger age and progresses into adulthood. According to Statistics Canada (2015) SAD is one of the most common anxiety disorders where 8-13% of Canadians will experience it at some point in their life.
How do people deal with SAD: A common coping strategy is to avoid the social situations that create stress, but this often leads to a person feeling incongruent since they want to go out, which can eventually lead to depression. Some people might self-medicate, or use alcohol in the hopes that it will take off the edge of their anxiety and make it easier to be in social situations. These are often short-term coping strategies, and can lead to bigger problems in the long-term.
So what can you do that is healthy and hopefully effective?
These are only some coping ideas that may be helpful if you try. I find the key to success is making sure you try multiple things to see what fits best for you and unlike avoidance there is a trial and error period with these strategies and a need to face some of the discomfort anxiety produces. Here a warning might be appropriate- if you set the expectation that these strategies will cure your anxiety the moment you try them, you are setting yourself up for failure. Even avoidance and self-medication doesn’t cure SAD, only delays it or makes you not have to face it. It is often by facing it that you can lessen the impact of it.
1. If you don’t know already, a very important step is to figure out what it is you actually fear in social situations. Is it specifically talking to people, eating or constant thoughts in your head about how people will look at you if you make a mistake? Often it can help to observe it for a week by writing down the situation and what is causing your body to react, this way you can try to get more specific with what you treat.
2. Relaxation tools. You might have heard this, and even be annoyed by it, but the truth is that relaxation helps. Breathing slow and deep is important to help you ride out the feelings, it won’t take them away instantly. Muscle relaxations, mindfulness, and other strategies are helpful to have in your tool box to decrease your physical symptoms as well.
3. Focus on what’s in front of you, not what’s in your head. Often social anxiety can be a product of worrying about how others see you, thinking that they are judging you. To offset this, focus on what is happening in the here and now to gather actual facts about the situation, as often our thoughts are guesses and not always based on what is happening. We might think someone is laughing at us, but are in fact laughing at a joke that you missed because you were focused on your internal thoughts and didn’t hear it.
4. Accepting the anxiety. Heart racing, breathing fast, fidgeting- these can be results of both anxiety and excitement. Often how we interpret the physical can change our understanding of the emotion. Trying to understand that anxiety and fear is normal can often decrease its strength. In situations where we feel threatened, that are new, it is normal to have a physical bodily reaction towards it and some positive and negative thoughts. Allowing these thoughts to come into your mind, thanking your mind by saying “thank you for the survival thoughts” and then focusing on what’s in front of you can help you accept the feelings and let them go.
5. Learning to be okay with the unknown. This comes with practice, and is often hard for people because we like to know and control situations. The more you can accept that there are many things out of your control, and focus in on what you do have control over, the more you will become okay with sitting in ambiguity.
6. Face your fears and build up positive experiences. Often we avoid situations because of the thought that it is going to be bad, because we have had one or two bad experiences. So you need to build up a repertoire of good ones. If you have 10 social situations, you are going to have some good and some bad, but when 8 are good then your belief in your social abilities will also raise. You can only get this through practice, if you avoid 8 social situations, you won’t have 8 options for good ones. Make sure you build up slowly. Don’t start with your worst feared social situation, practice with ones that are more comfortable and less anxiety provoking. Once you feel you have mastered these social situations, start going up to more anxiety producing situations, practice, master, and keep going. Most of all, be patient with yourself. SAD takes time to cope with, but with practice, learning to be in the present, mindful, and working to accept the feelings and change the thoughts, SAD can change.